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Merrill’s Marauders January 14, 2008

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1960s , trackback

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Samuel Fuller was trying to find a home for his pet project The Big Red One, intended as an epic account of the 1st Infantry squadron Fuller himself had been a part of in World War II, when studio head Jack Warner instead talked him into making Merrill’s Marauders. As Fuller writes in his autobiography A Third Face, the monolithic Warner Bros. boss insinuated that a successful experience adapting and directing Charlton Ogburn’s book The Marauders might result in an opportunity to get The Big Red One finally made. With this in mind, Fuller relented and the true story of an overmatched and resilient U.S. infantry unit who helped defeat the Japanese in 1944 Burma was set. Fuller had long wanted to work with Gary Cooper and wrote the part of Brigadier General Frank Merrill with him in mind, but Cooper hesitated because he thought he was too old for the role. Fuller’s book seems to imply that Cooper relented and was set to star in the film.

During preproduction, Cooper became sick with the effects of a terminal cancer that prevented him from playing Merrill and ended his life in May 1961. Jeff Chandler was brought in as a replacement and, tragically, would live only a month longer than Cooper. If there’s death in the air of Merrill’s Marauders, it’s unintentional, but nevertheless understandable. Merrill has a vulnerability rarely found in the powerful men of war movies. The heart condition he tries to conceal results in a nonfatal heart attack at the end of the film. Chandler gives the character so much understated pain and quiet suffering that it almost seems like he’s the one with the cardiac problems. In real life, it was his back that caused Chandler to suffer and a botched operation that killed him, a year before Fuller’s film (the actor’s last) hit cinemas.

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Merrill’s Marauders isn’t a great film or one of Fuller’s best, but it’s worth seeing for a few reasons. The silence is chief among them. The soldiers don’t yak each others’ ears off with profound or witty permutations on life. There’s really not much dialogue at all. Fuller always felt that Hollywood consistently got it wrong on war movies, especially by giving the grunts meaningful lines they’d never really say. The men here are anonymously average (underlined by the fact that none of the actors are movie stars or particularly well known), and simultaneously frustrated and courageous. Merrill asks and demands more than they think is possible to give of themselves. The majority of the soldiers are killed and most of the survivors are seriously wounded. But the objective (so to speak) is accomplished, the mission’s ultimately victorious. Every member of the volunteer unit was rewarded a Bronze Star after returning home.

There’s no glorification of war or battle from Fuller, which is to be expected considering his previous combat films The Steel Helmet and Fixed Bayonets! are two of the bleakest (and most powerful) of the 1950s. He knew firsthand that war is the closest thing to Biblical hell that humans have ever dreamed up and he refused to patriotize it. The war films he made celebrate the soldiers’ penchant for doggedly carrying on and do so through multi-dimensional and reasonably accurate portrayals. Fuller doesn’t demean or judge them for doing what they’ve been told to do amid circumstances beyond their control. His movies play like honest depictions often at odds with the recruitment fantasies manufactured in Hollywood. Even Merrill’s Marauders, with its comparatively stoic and fatalistic sensibility, is somewhat atypical as a war movie despite the studio-forced ending that Fuller fought against.

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Besides that real marching footage Fuller didn’t want, another scene from the film was altered from the director’s original idea because Warner Bros., Fuller claims, deemed it “too artistic” and used a second-unit director for more generic reshoots. Even with the clashes, the movie was well-received critically (the New York Times singled out Fuller in their short write-up as having a “dynamic visual sense” that “sets the film apart from others of the genre”) and made an $18 million profit at the box office when it opened in 1962. Instead of getting to do The Big Red One, Fuller’s reward was a Cadillac of his choice. He had to wait until 1980 to film his baby, bankrolled by the independent Lorimar production company and distributed theatrically by United Artists. Ironically, when The Big Red One was finally reconstructed to fit more closely with Fuller’s intentions in 2004, it was Warner Bros., after years earlier obtaining the rights to the Lorimar library, that put the film out on DVD.

In an odd move, Merrill’s Marauders was quietly released on R1 DVD in November exclusively via DeepDiscount.com. It’s unknown (though expected) whether the DVD will be available elsewhere or when. The only extra feature is a full screen theatrical trailer introduced by the production technical adviser Colonel Samuel Wilson. Video quality is outstanding, with a very impressive 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. Warner Bros. released a couple of war-themed box sets already so maybe we’ll see the disc pop up soon. I’m sure there are lots of people interested in owning the DVD who aren’t aware it even exists or would prefer to buy it from a more familiar store.

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